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ISSN 0281-9864 


Nicoletta Carameili 

Lund University 


Cognitive Science Research 


Nicoletta Caramelli 

19B9 No. E9 

Communications should be sent to: 

Bernhard Bierschenk 

Department of Psychology 
Paradisgatan 5 
Lund University 
S-ES3 50 LUND, Sweden 


This paper aims at pointing out the differing interpretations of 
metaphoric sentences' comprehension as developed in the recent 
psychol inguist ic literature. The inadequacies of the psychol inguist ic 
theories of language processing which rest on the assumption according 
to which language is the expression of a relatively autonomous cognitive 
activity are highlighted in the interpretation of metaphors as anomalous 
sentences. The rejection of the thesis of the anomalous character of 
metaphors due to the acknowledgement of the role of the semantic 
component of words, of the extra-linguistic context in which metaphors 
are produced, and more generally of the pragmatic factors influencing 
comprehension, invited the new view according to which metaphors are to 
be conceived as conveying some cognitive re-organization. The ecological 
approach to cognitive activity stressing the role played by the 'events' 
in modeling comprehension can be regarded as the best theoretical frame 
according to which it is possible to establish a link between language 
and perception and redefine the whole problem of language use. 



In what follows I will argue that for a sound psychological 
understanding of cognitive human activity, meaning has to be re-defined 
on wider, extral inguistic grounds, considering perception as well as 
shared knowledge of world events. 

The inadequacies of the current psychol inguistic theories of language 
processing, which are based on a purely linguistic interpretation of 
meaning, will be highlighted with special reference to the study of 
metaphorical sentence comprehension. 

In its simplest form, the so called nominal metaphor, a metaphorical 
sentence is one in which the name referring to a person, object, fact, 
or event is given a different name which refers to a different person, 
object, fact, or event. So the sentence 'My surgeon was a butcher' is a 
metaphor since a name, the so-called 'topic', in this case 'surgeon', is 
given another name, the so-called 'vehicle', in this case 'butcher'. 
Upon hearing this sentence, the listener understands what the sentence 

is meant to convey: the person who uttered it was really dissatisfied 
with his surgeon. 

The listener comprehends the meaning of the sentence because there are 
some properties shared by both the topic and the vehicle; a sub-set of 
the properties of the vehicle are referred to the topic. The set of 
shared properties which set forth the resemblance between the topic and 
the vehicle are called the 'ground', while the other properties which 
definitely establish the differences between them are called the 
'tension' (Richards, 1936). 

In the present talk we are mainly interested in showing tne difficulties 
encountered by researchers in explaining the comprehension of 
metaphorical sentences when language and meaning are assumed as 
separated from the other cognitive processes. 

The new concept of meaning required can be conceived of as the product 
of the cognitive activity involved in making sense from our experiences 
in which the physical environment, other people, their beliefs and 
social exchanges, have a fundamental role as shown by recent evidence on 
cognitive processes. This interpretation compels us to go beyond the 
traditional boundaries of the linguistic realm toward the 
acknowledgement of the unitary and complex character of cognitive 
activity as suggested by the ecological approach. 

- fletaphor as 'anomaly' 

During the seventies, psycholinguists renewed their interest in 
metaphors thanks to the success of Chomsky's theory in promoting 
fruitful research on cognitive activity. 

In his 1957 and 1965 linguistic theory, Chomsky held that the generative 
rules found in natural languages required a distinctive linguistic 
capacity, that there were differences between specifically linguistic 
and other cognitive abilities. In so arguing, he intended to stress the 
independence of the linguistic system from the other cognitive processes 
such as memory and perception. At the same time he established the 
logical priority of language in knowledge production (Greene, 197E). 
Language, in the broad sense which included information processing, 
could be the key to our cognitive activity, it could offer a new simple 
theoretical architecture with which mental work could be modeled (Lyons, 
1970) . 

As to the study of metaphorical sentences, the subordination of 
semantics to syntax, on which Chomsky's theory rested, favored the 
consideration of metaphors as anomalous, defective sentences which could 
be explained only by the violation of some selection restriction rules 
(Katz 2, Fodor, 1963). The only way to explain a speaker's ability in 
comprehending metaphors and other deviant and anomalous sentences was to 
suggest that defective sentences could be reduced to a grammatical 
paraphrase through a set of entailment or transformation rules. 
According to this perspective, metaphors could be understood thanks to 
their literal counterparts. 

The solution envisaged, however, was responsible for the deep conceptual 
change which affected psychol inguist ic research a few years later when 
the fundamental role of semantics in comprehending language was 
definitely acknowledged. 

Two aspects cf Chomsky's solution helped this development. One was the 
distinction between literal and figurative or metaphorical language, and 
the other was the concept of anomalous or defective sentence. 
At the end of the seventies, both the linguistic and the 
psychol ingui st ic approaches to the study of metaphors converged. It was 
assumed that metaphors could be comprehended only in relation to their 
literal equivalents and through a number of steps consisting in 
retrieving its literal meaning, in discarding it as nonsensical, and 
finally in grasping the figurative one. This common view helped to 
produce a great deal of experimental research based on the response 
latencies paradigm (see Hoffman, 198^ for a review). 

The theoretical frame provided by Chomsky lead to the rediscovery of 
both the study of cognitive processes and of metaphorical language, even 
though in an indirect way in the case of the latter as it was exactly 
the defective character of metaphors which made them interesting for 
psychol inguists. 

The rise in the renewed interest in metaphorical language from the 
peculiar psychol inguistic perspective during these years has been 
parallel with the acknowledgment of the insufficiencies of the 
interpretations mainly based on the syntactic, the semantic, and the 
pragmatic dimensions of language. 

- From 'anomaly' to conceptual re-organization 

At the end of the seventies, when the sequential model of the human 
information processing approach was shown to be fairly inadequate for 
the interpretation of complex cognitive processes in need for much more 

global accounts, the "anomaly" theory of metaphor comprehension began to 
elicit scholars' criticism from several converging perspectives. 
The distinction between literal and metaphorical language, and the 
ensuing problematic distinction between literal and metaphorical 
meaning, began to be guestioned (Gibbs, 198't; Dascal, 1987): both these 
uses of language require the same cognitive processing to be 
comprehended. The opportunity to explain metaphors on more articulated 
grounds than the mere anomaly thesis or the usually assumed syntactic 
approach became clearer day by day. 

Even the analysis of the semantic features of words and concepts used in 
creating implicit resemblance in metaphors proved not to be strong 
enough a strategy to explain the m.etaphor ical meaning of the sentences 
(Tversky, 1977; Ortony et al.,1985). The renewed interest in semantics 
and the acknowledgment of the role of meaning in comprehending language 
alerted scholars to the importance of both the linguistic and 
extral inguistic context in which metaphors are produced. Actually, it 
was shown that when metaphors follow a sentence acting as a linguistic 
or pragmatic context, they are understood more easily and more quickly 
than when they were presented as isolated sentences (Gildea ?« 
Glucksberg, 1983; Ortony, 1979). 

Moreover, many sentences can be considered at the same time as literal 
or metaphorical and accordingly they can be understood only in relation 
to^ the specific extral inguistic context in which they are uttered. 
At the same time Glucksberg and colleagues showed that the comprehension 
difficulties of metaphors to be judged true or false were not 
responsible for the time required by them to be responded to which was 
longer than that required by literal sentences. He argued that this 

effect was due to the peculiar task subjects were engaged in. Actually 
there is an interference effect between the logical truth value of the 
sentences when used literally and their pragmatic truth value assumed 
as true by people who in comprehending them follow the Quality Maxim by 
Grice (1975). 

The rejection of the thesis of the anomalous character of metaphors due 
to the (Tientioned developments, invited the new view according to which 
metaphors are to be conceived as conveying some cognitive re- 
organization. Federn Kittay observes: 

'But if metaphors are ccgr.-ltive it is not because they add to our store 
of factual data. It is because a metaphor causes us to think about 
soiriething in a new way, to reorganize the concepts we already have, and 
to form new conceptual i zat ions ... Th is is because the conceptual 
incongruity, when appropriate pragmatic considerations are operative, 
requires a conceptual resolution (an at least tentative conceptual 
reorganization)' ( Federn Kittay, 1987, 75). 

It is at this point that metaphors interpretation consists no longer in 

a mere linguistic analysis of the words expressed, but in the analysis 

of the concepts implied, thus establishing a new relationship between 

language and knowledge. However it is important to stress that the new 

approach required is feasible only if both meaning and comprehension are 

eventually re-defined. 

- Toward an ecological approach to the study of metaphors 

There are signs that the study of metaphors comprehension can help fill 
the gaps among perception, language, and experience sooner, and perhaps 
better, than the study of the literal use of language. However, it is 
becoming clearer and clearer that new perspectives are necessary to 
explain also how people understand literal language as really spoken in 

evEryday life. Comprehension, and hence meaning, are in need of a 

redefinition. Potter, Valian and Faulconer, studying mental 

representation of meaning, discovered that it is not verbal, as is 

usually assumed, nor imagistic. On the contrary, as they say: 

' an abstract conceptual representation of the sentence was compared 
with a similarly abstract representation of the probe, whether the 
latter was presented as a word or a drawing' (Potter, Valian, Faulconer, 
1977, 8). 

Their experimental findings allowed them to state that the pragmatic 

implications of a sentence depend precisely on such an abstract, 

conceptual representation common to language and perception. This result 

marked the end of the primacy of language in modeling cognition, even 

though many researchers still refute this evidence. 

From a different perspective, Clark and Marshall (1981) studying one of 

the most basic linguistic phenomena - definite reference - could not 

help but apply the pragmatic concept of mutual knowledge to explain it. 

Mutual knowledge refers to the speaker, the listener, and the objects 

referred to, as physically, linguistically, universally known within the 

community they belong to. 

Rosh ' s theory of 'prototypes' (1975; Rosch & Mervis, 1975) acknowledged 

the graded structure of our partitioning of the world, thus providing 

natural concepts with a new flexibility due to the effect of 

'typicality' and of 'goodness' of the examplars and also helping to 

understand the vicarious nature of the meaning of the words used to 

express them. 

More recently, Murphy and Medin (1985) advanced the thesis according to 

which cohesion can be achieved in conceptual structure only if there is 

a 'glue' amiong the concepts themselves from which cohesion arises. The 

'glue' is not dependent only on shared features of similarity among 

concepts; it presupposes that people have a general knowledge of the 
world 50 that a concept can be defined by both the attributes and 
relations shared by the single objects that are subsumed under that 
concept and by the attributes and relations that the peculiar concept 
shares with the other concepts in people general world knowledge. 
Also Barsalou (1987) studying categorization found that people can 
construct new categories on the spot which can be created to pursue 
novel goals: the so called 'ad hoc' categories. 'Ad hoc' categories 
share with the 'natural' and the so called 'goal-derived' categories a 
graded structure according to which there are exemplars of the category 
that are more typical than others. He argues that the flexibility 
exhibited by categories is a fundamental property of the human cognitive 

- The ecological approach 

These arguments on sentence representation, definite reference, concepts 

and categorization processes may be considered as an independent 

development of the theses held well before by the psycholinguists who 

had first set the program for a cognitive ecological psychology centered 

on the symbolic activity. It is worth mentioning the study by Bransford 

and McCarrell in which they originated a new perspective in the study of 

comprehension and meaning. Actually their position was the following: 

''s knowledge of his environment is considerably richer than 
knowledge of the perceptual characteristics of isolated 

objects. . .perceptual ly derived knowledge entails knowledge of rjg.L§i_.l°IIs. 
rather than things .. .Linguistic comprehension can also be characterized 
as 'the grasping of relations', linguistic comprehension depends upon 
the comprehender ' s cognitive, alinguistic ability to activate knowledge 
that will allow relations to be grasped. ( Bransford tx hcCarrell, 197^, 

In their view, language is comprehended thanks to the cognitive activity 

consisting in both defining the instructions for creating meaning and 

grasping the semantic content of sentences which produces their 

comprehension. As they put it: 

' Ss do make cognitive contributions while comprehending... certain 
contributions are prerequisites for achieving a click or 
comprehension. .. knowledge of abstract constraints on entities and 
relations plays an important role in determining S= ' contributions... 
meaning is the result of such contributions and is best viewed as 
something that is 'created' rather than stored and retrieved' (Bransford 
t flcCarrell , 1974, 201 ) . 

In sentence comprehension individual word perception is not the most 

important thing. Actually the same word may have many different senses 

according to the context in which it is embedded. Context, here, is 

meant in a very broad sense since objects are not identifieo as iTiere 

objects, instead they are understood relative to their roles in events. 

So there is no principled distinction in the processes needed in 

comprehending literal and metaphorical language: what matters is the 

event in which language takes place. 

As the seminal researches on metaphor by Verbrugge and MacCarrell (1977) 

clearly show, the relation of similarity and resemblance on which 

metaphors rest can be best explained by assuming that the differing 

salience of the 'features' of the entities involved is a function of the 

particular event in which they participate, rather than by considering 

it^as dependent on the specific context in which the metaphor is 

produced, be it linguistic or extral inguistic . 

The problem of comprehension, as well as that of word meaning does not 

lie in widening the range of constraints, but in determining what 


constraints need to be imposed on words to make sentences and 

metaphorical combinations interpretable: 

'Language operates as an elaborate system of constraints that, among 
other things can guide the reinterpretation of types of experiences 
specified originally in perception and action... Metaphorici ty is not a 
property of sentences as objects, but is a type of dynamic relation 
holding over utterances, language users and perceived or imagined 
settings. The risk in treating metaphors as a preeminently linguistic 
phenomenon is that a particular linguistic attitude is adapted: Meanings 
can be ascribed to sentence-objects abstracted from communication 
settings' (Verbrugge, 1979, 78-9). 

Verbrugge's work pushes the redefinition of language and meaning still 

further: language and event perception are compatible and mutually 

supportive: comprehension may be conceived as a form of catalysis since 

event perception guides linguistic action as is shown not only by 

metaphor comprehension but also by deictic expressions. In this 

articulated system, metaphors are a catalyst for knowing since 

metaphorical processes can depend on language as well as on perceptual 

experience, coordinated movement and thought; all the cognitive 

functions are considered as accomplishing the mutual fitting between an 

organism and its environment. The reconciliation between the human 

biological organism and his physical environment is fully accomplished 

and language is one of the means through which it can be realized. As 

Verbrugge says: 

'Linguistic actions are similar to other events that provide information 
for perception and action; a listener must become attuned to the natural 
relations between speech and social settings. In the case of language, 
the necessary attunements develop over years of talking and listening in 
a particular social environment, in which the natural relations between 
speech and setting are highly invariant and slow to change... in both 
linguistic and non linguistic events, the relation between indexes and 
listeners (or perceivers) is non arbitrary. Perception, thought, and 
action are all constrained in highly systematic ways .. .Language 
constrains users in non arbitrary ways' (Verbrugge, 1985, 180). 

In this theoretical frame, language is no longer conceived as a formal, 

representational, mediated, arbitrary, system. It no longer establishes 


a separation between the human being and l-iis environment. On the 
contrary, it is ttie tool producecj by evolution to realize more complex 
and abstract forms of fitting between them. 

- Concluding remarks 

At this very point it is clear that the required redefinition of 
comprehension as well as of meaning is achieved thanks to the definition 
of a naturalistic and biological view of human cognitive abilities. 
Several paths have been discovered in the long journey from a language 
based interpretation of cognitive processes to a cognitive 
interpretation of the different functions through which the mutual 
interdependence of human beings as biological systems and their 
environment is realized. This long and difficult course has been greatly 
helped by the study of metaphorical sentence comprehension which finally 
addressed the crucial aspects of language, thought and cognitive 
activi ty . 

Meaning is attually constructed by the duality linking the perceivers to 
their physical and social environment. This duality sets the constraints 
according to which people act both physically and symbolically on the 
environment in a purposeful way. Perception, language, as well as the 
other cognitive resources to be properly understood have to be studied 
in^their mutual interdependence which expresses the same interdependence 
between the organism and its environment. 


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Nicoletta Caramelli is associate progessor at the Department of 
Psychology of the University of Bologna, Italy. 

Paper presented at the First European Congress of Psychology 

Symposium: Ecological Psychology: Human Response to Environmental Change 

Amsterdam, July 2-7, 1989.